Holy Days and Celebrations
There are many celebration days in the Buddhist calendar. These festivals are always joyous occasions. Typically lay people will visit the local temple or monastery in the morning and offer food to the monks, take the Five Precepts and listen to a Dhamma / Dharma talk. In the afternoon, people often distribute food to the poor in order to generate merit, and in the evening they might join in a ceremony of circumambulation of a stupa three times as a sign of respect to the Buddha, Dhamma / Dharma and Sangha. The celebrations will usually conclude with evening chanting of the Buddha’s teachings as well as meditation.
Some celebrations are specific to a particular Buddhist tradition or ethnic group, for example in the Mahayana tradition many festivals celebrate the birthdays of bodhisattvas. When considering Buddhist festivals it is also important to remember that, with the exception of Japan, most Buddhists use the Lunar Calendar and the dates of festivals vary from country to county and between traditions.
The major Buddhist festivals include the following: Wesak (or Visakah Puja or Buddha Day) is traditionally a celebration of the Buddha’s birthday, but his Enlightenment and death are also celebrated. This is the major Buddhist festival of the year and is held on the day of the first full moon in May, except in a leap year when the festival in held in June. Wesak day is usually a public holiday in Buddhist countries and Buddhists assemble at their temple before dawn for the ceremonial hoisting of the Buddhist flag and the singing of hymns in praise of the Triple Gem. Devotees may bring offerings such as flowers, candles and incense. These symbolic offerings remind followers that just as flowers wither and candles and incense burn out, so too is life subject to change, decay and destruction. Buddhists are also encouraged to refrain from eating meat on Wesak day with butchers and places selling alcohol usually closed. Sometimes symbolic acts of liberation are made, where animals or birds are released. Additionally, Buddhists will feed monks and the poor, take the Precepts, listen to Dhamma / Dharma talks, chant, meditate and offer homage to the Triple Gem
Buddhist New Year, in Theravadin countries (Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Lao), is celebrated for three days from the first full moon in April. In some Mahayana countries it starts on the day following the first full moon in January, but dates are very much dependent on ethnic background. For example, Chinese Koreans and Vietnamese Buddhists celebrate in late January or early February (depending on the full moon), while Tibetans usually celebrate a month later.
Asalha Puja Day (or Dhamma / Dharma Day) commemorates the first teaching of the Buddha and the turning of the Dhamma / Dharma Wheel, to his old ascetic colleagues at the Sarnath Deer Park. This festival is usually held on the full moon day of the eighth lunar month (approximately July).
Ulambana (or Ancestor Day) is mainly celebrated in Mahayana countries although some Theravadins also participate. It is held during the first fifteen days of the eighth lunar month. It is believed that ghosts visit the world during these days, so food offerings are left out to relieve their suffering.
Uposatha is mainly observed in Theravada countries and is held on each new moon, full moon and quarter moon days (ie around once a week). For the laity this is a chance to renew vows and take precepts, visit monasteries, make offerings, listen to Dhamma talks and meditate. Monks will confess any violations of the vinaya then chant the Patimokkha (a set of rules for monks). Depending of the speed of the chanting this can take from 30 minutes to an hour. The laity are often allowed to listen and many find it a peaceful experience, settling the mind and aiding meditation.